- A one-sided U.S. approach provided political cover to the TPLF insurgency. Washington now has an opportunity to create the conditions for peace.
- The international press has fallen prey to the TPLF’s narrative without considering the group’s recent history as an authoritarian ruling party that repressed all other groups in the country.
- Washington needs to subdue its nostalgia for the TPLF dictatorship and embrace, instead, Ethiopia’s transition into a fragile post-conflict democracy.
- Ethiopia’s rocky road ahead is made much harder by Egypt’s determination to play a role in Ethiopia’s conflict and destabilize Abiy’s government.
Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.
Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.
Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.
While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.
Despite Abiy’s peace agreement with Eritrea, the TPLF refused to demilitarize the contested border or pull its troops back onto Ethiopian soil—and it was militarily strong enough to flout Abiy’s demands. The TPLF’s ongoing ability to obstruct the peace dealwas a source of embarrassment to Abiy that highlighted the central government’s weakness in relation to Ethiopia’s more well-armed regions. Abiy sent multiple peace delegations to Tigray to promote peace and reconciliation, but his efforts were complicated by the popular will to reduce the TPLF’s stranglehold over all aspects of Ethiopian life.
Abiy’s moves to rebalance the scales by removing some Tigrayans from positions of power were demanded by the populace but alarmed the TPLF and increased the prospects for war. Abiy’s diversification of the military command—which had been composed predominantly of Tigrayans—was particularly provocative to the TPLF, but essential to Abiy’s efforts to consolidate control and establish a federal monopoly on the use of force.
By late 2020, it appeared that conflict was inevitable. In the early hours of Nov. 4, 2020, the TPLF launched a simultaneous sneak attack on five federal military bases (known as the Northern Command) in Tigray. On television, TPLF leaders admitted to the “preemptive strike,” boasting of killing all the former comrades-in-arms who had resisted their takeover.
Days later, on Nov. 9, 2020, a TPLF-aligned militia carried out a systematic ethnic cleansing of hundreds of innocent Amhara civilians in the town of Mai Kadra. (Reuters reported that the TPLF appeared to have laid the groundwork for this slaughter in late October 2020, before the attacks on the military bases.) This atrocity infuriated the Amhara militia supporting the federal troops and initiated a vicious cycle of revenge attacks against Tigrayans.
Despite the messy complexities of this conflict, the media has tended to frame the war as a government-instigated genocide against the people of Tigray, or even as a civil war (a term that implies parity between the broad support enjoyed by Ethiopia’s elected government against the fringe, ethnic-based constituencies of the TPLF and its equally fringe ally, the Oromo Liberation Front’s violent Shene faction, which the TPLF itself previously regarded as a terrorist group).
The TPLF’s strategic communications have followed the same playbook as in the 1980s, when conflict narratives carefully targeted the policy agenda of international donors and tainted Ethiopia’s then-government, a Marxist regime known as the Derg, with accusations of crimes against humanity.
As in the 1980s, the TPLF today has played up its ethnic minority status and Tigray’s endemic food insecurity—20 percent of the population is habitually dependent on food safety nets—to prompt fears of genocide and famine. (TPLF supporters on Twitter began spreading the #TigrayGenocide hashtag within hours of the Nov. 4, 2020, military base attacks.)
The international press has fallen prey to the TPLF’s narrative without considering the group’s recent history as an authoritarian ruling party that repressed all other groups in the country.
And once again, the international press has fallen prey to these narratives without considering the TPLF’s recent history as an authoritarian ruling party that repressed all other groups in the country. The TPLF’s sophisticated propaganda was aided by both the Ethiopian government’s initially weak communications strategy and the government’s (probably strategic) denials that Eritrea was acting as its ally in the war.
But the media have mostly stuck by their early depiction of the TPLF as “underdog,” even as the rebel group’s massive armies—thought to number around 250,000 trained soldiers—threatened to storm the capital city to overthrow the government.
The media’s dogged focus on Tigrayan victimhood has all but erased the acute suffering of the voiceless Tigrayan communities who do not support the TPLF and the country’s other ethnic groups who, for years, were marginalized under TPLF rule. Horrific massacres in Afar and Amhara at the hands of the TPLF have been strikingly underreported, even though accounts of violence are emerging daily in shocking proportions.
The lopsided narrative has also affected Eritreans, who—for all the villainy of their armed forces in Tigray—have suffered a nearly 20-year occupation of their territory and a ruthless economic blockade at the hands of the TPLF, which leveraged its domination of the African Union and its status as an indispensable partner in the global war on terrorism to deflect criticism of its own human rights record and securefrom its allies punitive measures, including U.N. sanctions, against Eritrea.
Some part of the hostility toward Eritrea is owed to the belligerent and murderous conduct of the country’s president, Isaias Afwerki; likewise, to some degree, the TPLF has itself been scapegoated for the sins of the dysfunctional Ethiopian political culture.
But the double standard applied to the parties is unmistakable. The fragility of the 6 million strong Tigrayan ethnic minority against the 105 million strong Ethiopian state has been expounded by the press; Eritreans have also, historically, been a minority of just a few millions battlingagainst the massive Ethiopian state apparatus that the TPLF presided over. No hint of that painful history—including the detention, torture, killing, or expulsion of at least 75,000 people of Eritrean descent at the start of the 1998 border war—has pervaded the Western narrative on Tigray.
The TPLF’s history as a powerfully armed proxy in the U.S.-led war on terror is also poorly understood, particularly its willingness to serve as the pointy end of the United States’ spear in Somalia. The TPLF-dominated Ethiopian army launched an invasion of Somalia in 2006 to destroy a grassroots governance movement, the Islamic Courts Union, that the United States perceived as threatening its national security interests—then brutally occupied the country for years afterwards.
The Ethiopian army’s human rights abuses in Somalia helped propel the al-Shabab terrorist group to power (though only Eritrea was sanctioned for its rise). U.S. reliance on the continued presence of Ethiopian troops to contain al-Shabab has led successive U.S. administrations to protect, and finance, the TPLF.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice is infamous in the Horn of Africa for laughing on television daily in 2015 over the U.S. endorsement of the TPLF-dominated government’s rigged 100 percent national election win. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama himself was lambasted after a 2012 visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during which he praised the “democratically elected” dictatorship as one of the finest governments in Africa.
Knowing Washington’s checkered past, many Ethiopians have not unreasonably interpreted Western media bias, and the Biden administration’s punitive measures against the Ethiopian authorities, as a deliberate effort to whitewash the TPLF’s crimes in the name of counterterrorism. Many Ethiopians even fear that Washington actively backs the insurgency and is seeking a Libya-Iraq-Somalia-style intervention to shatter Ethiopia and the new efforts for regional peace that Abiy, for many, has come to represent.
Western media reporting has tended to depict Abiy—incorrectly—as both instigator and driver of the war. On the contrary, the TPLF was found at the start of the war to possess militia and weaponry that most experts assessed as equivalent, or better, than those of the federal army.
The military hardware of five of the seven Northern Command outposts was repossessed by the TPLF in the November 2020 attacks (the two outposts located closer to the border with Amhara were less affected); combine this with the pillaged intelligence infrastructure that ex-spy chief Getachew Assefa had routed back to Tigray’s capital Mekele prior to the start of the war, and an already heavily weaponized region-wide command structure that had retained arms since the overthrow of the Derg—including mechanized brigades, which under regional governments are unconstitutional.
This capability imbalance put the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) significantly on the back foot for most of the year-long conflict: taken by surprise on Nov. 4, caught off guard by the insurgency that followed the launch of federal forces into Tigray, unprepared for the massive recruitment drive (apparently known to U.N. agenciesoperating in Tigray) that supported the TPLF invasion of the Afar and Amhara regions after the government’s withdrawal from Tigray in June, and contending with collaborator-facilitated disruption in Addis Ababa and some major towns.
As the TPLF insurgency moved into the Tigrayan countryside, Ethiopian federal forces and their allies sought to disarm the TPLF and capture its leaders. As they did so, horrific reports of systematic rape, killings, other crimes, and general severe collateral damage began emerging. The violence then shifted to the Amhara and Afar regions as TPLF fighters expanded the war.
A joint investigation by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission uncovered a laundry list of atrocities committed in Tigray by all parties to the conflict that likely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report is by far the most comprehensive survey of the atrocities committed in Tigray up to June of this year. It is essential that a similar comprehensive survey supported by a consistent methodology is carried out in both Amhara and Afar.
Beyond the report, what is clear is that the suffering of multiple groups is severe. As many as 400,000 Tigrayans may be facing famine-like conditions as a result of conflict, logistical interference, and the Ethiopian government’s bureaucratic processes impacting on aid delivery. The populations of the much larger Afar and Amhara regions are also suffering comparable levels of acute food insecurity as a result of the TPLF’s blocking and looting of aid, threatening of humanitarian workers, pillaging from communities, and ethnic-based massacresof its own.
It’s abundantly clear that the TPLF never intended to prioritize the delivery of life-saving aid to its citizens, despite the international community mounting pressure on the federal Ethiopian government for a unilateral cease-fire to pave the way for this.
In demanding the government cease-fire, which federal forces granted in June 2021, well-meaning international actors made an unrealistic and deadly miscalculation: They assumed that residual TPLF governing structures would prioritize fair and impartial humanitarian aid distribution above armed insurgency.
This was not the case—the TPLF instead took the opportunity to invade neighboring territories, where it pillaged communities and further plundered aid supplies. Recognizing that the TPLF was diverting aid to support its war, the Ethiopian government’s time-consuming security protocols applied to all aid shipments also impacted the flow of relief.
Last week’s announcement of the TPLF’s withdrawal from the Amhara region signifies the success of the federal forces’ effort to halt the TPLF advance on Addis Ababa and secure key strategic arteries of the country: Amhara’s industrial heartlands of Dessie and Kombolcha, and the main road between Addis Ababa and Djibouti.
The withdrawal of non-fallen and non-surrendered TPLF fighters back to Tigray also exposes multiple U.S. policy failures that—based on the lack of calls for the TPLF to withdraw from Amhara and Afar and punitive measures incentivizing a TPLF cease-fire—arguably prolonged the conflict.
U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa is in tatters, with Sudanese generals overrunning the Washington-backed transitional government; Sudan acting aggressively in the al-Fashqa border region with Ethiopia; Khartoum and Cairo adopting a bellicose stance toward the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD); Somalia demanding the withdrawal of U.S.-backed peacekeepers; Eritrea seething over the imposition of U.S. sanctions; and Ethiopian officials convinced that Washington is fomenting regime change.
Even Djibouti’s foreign minister has felt driven to announce, on Twitter, that the Djiboutian government would not allow any foreign troops—meaning U.S. forces—to use its territory to launch attacks on its neighbors.
The United States has been losing ground in Africa to China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states for some time. But now, there’s not a single nation in the geostrategically vital Horn region that is reliably in Washington’s corner. As a new cold war heats up, that bodes poorly for U.S. President Joe Biden.
Also underappreciated is the massive surge of nationalism that the TPLF’s aggression has ignited in Ethiopia. Abiy’s party won a landslide victory in elections that were certainly imperfect but generally deemed by international observers to be “calm, peaceful, and credible,” and in which approximately 75 percent of the eligible population voted.
Tens of thousands are taking to the streets every week—not only in Ethiopia, but across 27 cities around the world—to demonstrate support for the federal government, thousands of new recruits have flocked to the military, civilians are taking up arms, and pro-government cyber armies are flooding Facebook and Twitter.
U.S. policy is in tatters; there’s not a single nation in the geostrategically vital Horn region that is reliably in Washington’s corner.
Whether Abiy will be able to continue riding this tide—complemented by the ENDF’s successful campaign to push some TPLF rebels back into Tigray, the mass surrender of other fighters, and the ugly rooting out of Ethiopia’s ostensible enemies in Addis Ababa—remains unclear.
Certainly, however, the alliance between Ethiopia and Eritrea looks set to outlast the war. Washington has a critical national security interest at stake: first, in salvaging its reputation, and second, in ensuring that the partnership between Abiy and Isaias produces more prosperity and freedom for Eritrea and not more repression for Ethiopia. But if it doesn’t correct course, and quickly, Washington is likely to have no voice at all in forming whatever political dispensation is coming next.
For years, Washington has shamelessly praised and relied on Ethiopia for “exporting stability” to problem spots around the Horn. In practice, that has meant financing a police state that enforced both domestic and regional stability through intense repression. Ethiopians paid, dearly, for Washington’s reliance on the type of stability that dictatorship created. (And Ethiopians are not alone—U.S. backing of autocratic governments in Uganda, Burundi, and Djibouti is also tied to its counterterrorism objectives.)
Washington needs to subdue its nostalgia for the TPLF dictatorship and embrace, instead, Ethiopia’s transition into a fragile post-conflict democracy. It needs to stop blaming Abiy for the inevitable explosion of decades’ worth of pent-up ethnic animosities and acknowledge that some part of the immense devastation of this war is due to Washington’s own careless funding, and political backing, of an authoritarian regime.
Critically, the U.S. government also needs to be far more prudent in its handling of the Egypt-Ethiopia conflict over the GERD, and acknowledge that the GERD’s potential for meaningful region-led development will only bring scale to the last decade’s worth of internationally funded development in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia’s rocky road ahead is made much harder by Egypt’s determination to play a role in Ethiopia’s conflict and destabilize Abiy’s government—as demonstrated by Cairo’s push for a U.N. Security Council halt to the second filling of the GERD’s reservoir, and Egypt’s launch of joint air exercises with Sudan days after the TPLF attacks on the northern bases and again following GERD discussions this April in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Biden administration also urgently needs to develop a better understanding of Ethiopia’s domestic political landscape—including the basis of dissatisfaction felt by some Oromo groups, and the impact of the TPLF’s historical, unconstitutional land seizures—and stop making impossible demands.
The prime minister cannot, for example, agree to negotiate with the TPLF, which has been declared a terrorist group by the parliament; popular anger at the rebels is so inflamed that a compromise of that magnitude would significantly destabilize Abiy’s government. U.S. calls for both negotiations and inclusive dialogue are also incompatible, as the former afford exclusivity to one group and undermine the national, unified aspect of a dialogue.
Washington also can’t just double down on punitive actions that have so far done nothing to shorten or de-escalate the conflict. U.S. officials have already shot off the biggest arrow in their quiver: against the advice of congressional leaders, they have kicked Ethiopia out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), throwing tens of thousands of low-wage female workers out of their jobs. Abiy hasn’t flinched. Doubling down on a failed strategy won’t work.
Even if U.S. officials could bring Abiy to the table, there is no reason to believe—as Washington seems to—that a political settlement with the TPLF would not lead, as in South Sudan, to rounds and rounds of increasingly destructive warfare as the insurgent group rips up every peace deal it makes in its efforts to retake power. As horrific as this war is, the next one promises to be worse.
Washington’s best maneuver—for shortening the war and salvaging its reputation—is to call for the surrender of the TPLF leaders who planned and initiated the war. The TPLF’s recent broaching of peace and the Ethiopian federal government’s announcement that its troops would not cross into Tigray offers an opportunity for a complete cessation of fighting.
This is clearly not enough: A mere cessation of hostilities is unlikely to allow for the uninterrupted flow of aid that is urgently needed to stem the hunger crisis in Tigray. It also leaves an open space for further TPLF-led disinformation campaigns and insurgency planning and is likely to be perceived by the Amhara and Afar communities as a betrayal, since those groups are most at risk in the face of the TPLF fighters being granted any short-term reprieve. (Eritrea, too, could reasonably fear a renewed TPLF assault on its borders.)
The removal of key TPLF instigators from the battlefield would probably provide all these actors with reassurance, even without a widespread disarmament process taking place. Importantly, it would also provide an opportunity for non-TPLF Tigrayan voices, or a younger generation of TPLF figures, to participate in the political process. The alternative to the TPLF leaders’ surrender is likely to be a long and appalling stalemate in which the TPLF may repeatedly attempt to break out of Tigray to gain access to a Sudanese supply line, but with diminishing likelihood of success as its ammunition and supplies dry up.
The only party that has faced no consequences from Washington is the one that started, expanded, and prolonged the war.
Calling for the surrender of key TPLF leaders will help to reassure Ethiopians that the United States is not backing the insurgency or seeking the overthrow of the Ethiopian government. Decisive action on that front is needed, not least to combat outrage over leaked footage of discussions between senior U.S. analysts and former diplomats and the TPLF on plans to overthrow and replace the Abiy government.
If these TPLF leaders refuse to surrender in the interest of peace, the United States should apply sanctions. Unlike Abiy, the TPLF’s leaders have both assets and family overseas and would be vulnerable to pressure put on their fortunes. Sanctions would also send a firm message to anyone planning future insurgencies.
Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean people are set to bear the costs of U.S. efforts to punish their governments—Eritreans through sanctions and Ethiopia through loss of its access to AGOA. It is not lost on anyone that the only party that has faced no consequences from Washington is the one that started, expanded, and prolonged the war.
In the interest of peace, Abiy should, in turn, be encouraged to declare amnesty for the TPLF rank-and-file who were coerced into fighting (he has offered such amnesty in the past). Whether to lift the terrorist designation on the TPLF is a matter in the hands of Ethiopia’s parliament, and thus probably beyond the reach of U.S. persuasion.
But if it were to call for surrender of the TPLF leadership, the United States might at least be positioned to exert some constructive influence on peace talks between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray, including which parties and individuals are included in those talks—especially if it offers to help foot the reconstruction bills.
Abiy has already initiated plans for a comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue (that may or may not involve representatives from the TPLF, depending on the group’s next moves). These discussions will be organized by an independent committee and will address “all agendas,” including a constitutional referendum. But again, U.S. or EU engagement in these talks, even as observers, is unlikely to be welcome without a visible course correction.
The immediate road ahead must prioritize restoring critical services across the northern regions and enabling permissive space for repressed voices to be heard (including those of the Oromo people who have suffered violent repression under Abiy’s administration), re-entry for legitimate Tigrayan opposition parties, and support to the many TPLF affiliates who became innocent accessories to the war effort.
If, following these moves, voters in the Tigray region choose to secede from Ethiopia, then this option should be supported; if not, eradicating the harsh and repressive intelligence apparatus currently cemented in the region will be imperative for Tigray’s future peace and stability.
Through his ambitious regional integration agenda, and with new electricity generated by the GERD, Abiy may be able to produce economic dividends great enough to not only rebuild the shattered north—including Tigray if its people choose to stay (and they may not)—but also satisfy the young population’s unmet hunger for opportunity.
U.S. support will be needed to chart this difficult path. With economic growth based on inclusion and not ethnic segregation, Ethiopia may become a real bulwark of stability—one whose peace is based on inclusive prosperity, not bloody repression.
Bronwyn Bruton, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, and Ann Fitz-Gerald, the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a professor of international security at Wilfrid Laurier University.